Osama bin Laden does not talk about oil when he calls for a holy war against the enemies of Islam. Neither does George Bush, when he calls for a global war against terrorism. Both major protagonists in the current conflict stress moral and religious themes in their public pronouncements, claiming that this is a struggle between good and evil. But both bin Laden and Bush are well aware that the conflict also represents a struggle for control over the greater Persian Gulf region -- the location of about two-thirds of the world's known petroleum reserves.
One can view the current conflict between the United States and Osama bin Laden's global terror network on a number of levels: as a struggle over the role of Islam in the modern world; as a fight between Islamic fundamentalists and less doctrinaire, Western-backed governments in the region; and as an inevitable consequence of America's continuing support for Israel. But however useful these strands of analysis, it is not possible to fully appreciate the origins and significance of the conflict without considering the historic role of oil politics.
The greater Gulf area (encompassing Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and several adjacent countries) has been a major international battleground ever since oil was discovered there in the early years of the 20th century. At first it was Great Britain that fought to gain control over the area's petroleum wealth, with a particular focus on the oil reserves of Persia (renamed Iran in 1935). Later France moved into the area, seeking control over the reserves in Iraq. Further north, in the Caspian Sea basin, Czarist Russia and then the Soviet Union established a significant foothold in the oil-rich Baku area (now a part of Azerbaijan).
Since World War II, the United States has been the dominant outside power in the greater Gulf area, with a significant presence in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. American involvement started in March 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi regime, and forged a long-lasting strategic partnership.
Although details of the Roosevelt-Abdel Aziz agreement have never been made public, the basic outlines of the deal are widely known: in return for privileged U.S. access to Saudi oil, the United States agreed to protect the royal family against both external and internal threats. To fulfill its side of the bargain, the United States has provided Saudi Arabia with billions of dollars worth of modern weapons, has trained and advised the Saudi army and paramilitary police, and, since 1990, has deployed large numbers of American combat personnel in the kingdom.
This relationship has provided both parties with multiple benefits. The United States has enjoyed favored access to Saudi Arabia's immense oil reserves and earned many billions of dollars from the sale of advanced weapons and other high-tech systems to the Saudi government. The Saudi monarchy, for its part, has accumulated immense wealth from the sale of oil and enjoyed relative immunity from foreign or domestic attack.
In recent years, however, both sides have attracted considerable hostility from militant Islamists because of their close relationship with one another. The royal family has attracted hostility because it is so closely tied with the United States, which in turn is associated with Israel and the repression of the Palestinians, and because it has allowed non-Muslim American soldiers -- infidels, as seen by their detractors -- to reside in the country (which is viewed as the Muslim holy land because of its historic role in the life of Mohammed). The United States, for its part, is condemned for aiding Israel and for helping to keep the Saudi monarchy in power.
It is from this cauldron of contending forces that Osama bin Laden's network has emerged. Once a privileged member of the Saudi elite, bin Laden has become its most dedicated opponent. (Fifteen of the 19 terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks were also recruited in Saudi Arabia.) Ultimately, bin Laden seeks to drive the United States out of the kingdom and replace the monarchy with a Taliban-like fundamentalist regime. And because he lacks the armies to accomplish this aim, he has relied on recurring acts of sabotage and terrorism.
The United States has been fighting this threat since the early 1990s, when bin Laden first announced a jihad against America and initiated his first acts of terrorism. This has involved stepped-up security procedures at American embassies and military bases in the Middle East and elsewhere, and often secret efforts to track down and arrest bin Laden's associates. The Clinton administration also launched missile attacks against bin Laden's Afghan headquarters following the 1998 terrorist strikes at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Through all of this, the United States has sought to preserve friendly ties with the Saudi monarchy, now headed by King Fahd. (Day-to-day control is exercised by Crown Prince Abdullah, however, because Fahd is seriously ill.) But friendly ties have become increasingly difficult, because the royal family faces growing opposition at home and thus seeks to distance itself from Washington. As a result, Riyadh (the Saudi capital) has been slow to provide U.S. investigators with information on the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks and to cut off funds to religious charities linked to bin Laden's terror network.
At no point, however, has the United States considered reducing its dependence on Middle Eastern oil or in altering its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the national energy policy released by the Bush administration last spring called for a steady increase in U.S. petroleum imports from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf suppliers. For this reason, the report notes, "The Gulf will be a primary focus of U.S. international energy policy."
But U.S. officials also seek to diversify the sources of imported energy, so as to compensate for any future interruption in the delivery of Gulf oil. This has led to growing U.S. interest in the oil and natural gas reserves of the Caspian Sea basin, especially those of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. (All told, these countries are believed to possess some 200 billion barrels of oil, or about one-third the amount found in the Persian Gulf area.) These countries, too, face a threat from Islamic extremists supported by Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terror network. It is not surprising, then, that U.S. troops have conducted joint military exercises with forces from many of these countries.
It is against this backdrop that the events of Sept. 11 and thereafter must be viewed. Although Osama bin Laden is not directly concerned with the flow of oil from the Gulf and the Caspian Sea area, his determination to drive the United States out of the area and replace existing governments with militant Islamic regimes represents a direct threat to American oil interests in the region. Thus, in fighting Al Qaeda, the United States has two sets of objectives: first, to capture and punish those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, and to prevent further acts of terrorism; and second, to consolidate American power in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea area and to ensure the continued flow of oil. And while the second set may get far less public attention than the first, this does not mean that it is any less important.
What are the implications of this for future U.S. policy? The American public rightfully wants to see Osama bin Laden brought to justice and his worldwide terror network eradicated. This must be the immediate goal of American foreign policy. But once this has been accomplished, the United States should reassess the risks and benefits of growing U.S. oil dependence from greater Gulf area, and consider whether it might be appropriate to, in time, reduce U.S. military presence there. Surely, the last thing we need is an endless series of wars over access to Persian Gulf oil.